How many passes are enough to prepare a manuscript for professional editing? If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: No editor wants to work on your first or second draft. It’s not ready for editing. A manuscript isn’t edit-ready until you’ve set it aside for weeks or months to regain your objectivity, sought out feedback from objective readers, and revised it thoroughly from the story level up. A professional edit before then would be a waste of time and money.
New writers typically approach me after about three drafts: a first revision to cover any initial changes of heart involving the story, another in reaction to feedback from early readers, and a third to fiddle with grammar and spelling. Problem: That covers less than half the ways I recommend strengthening your manuscript before you seek professional editing.
When You’re Done, Put It Away
The number one obstacle to effective self-revision is insufficient time away from your manuscript. The adrenaline rush of completing your first draft whips you into a frenzy. You’ve crossed the finish line! You’re ready for editing! Your book could be on the shelf in just weeks!
The very first thing you should do with a new manuscript is put it away.
Slow down there, babycakes.
As pumped as you may be to push to publication, the very first thing you should do with a new manuscript is put it away. Don’t look at it for weeks—months, if you can stand it. Let it simmer while you take time away from the page and regain perspective.
Go ahead, watch some movies and read some books. Get outside. Recharge your creative batteries. You’re going to need the energy for the work ahead.
The Simple Six-Pass Revision Plan
Most writers approach revision like this: You open up the file at the beginning and start chugging through the file one page at a time. Your fingers flit here, there, and everywhere, launching a new subplot here, tweaking dialogue there, fixing that spelling error you always make (but forgetting to run a Find and Replace to clean it up across the whole document) …
What a mess. As soon as you begin thinking about a pacing issue, a grammatical question yanks you away. You fix that, only to notice that the dialogue on the next page could use more oomph, so you start writing—and pretty soon, your scene has ballooned to twice the size it should be, ruining the pacing you began tuning at the beginning of the day.
When you’re constructing a novel, think like a builder. Start at the bottom of your story house and build up.
You can call each of these steps “drafts.” You can call them “passes,” or you can call them “rounds” of revision. It doesn’t matter what you call them. What matters is that you tackle each step without getting distracted by tasks from the others.
1. The Framework Pass
2. The Story Pass
3. The Plot/Scene Pass
4. The Feedback Pass
5. The Writing Pass
6. The Tweaking Pass
While most new writers assume they’ll be spending a lot of time checking grammar and spelling, you’ll see from this list that there are more passes involving the story than there are in revising the words that tell it. Put your time and effort where it counts.
Once you see how efficient it is to plow through your document looking for one type of issue at a time, you may decide to get even more granular. Go for it! Make as many passes and generate as many drafts in each phase as you need to be certain that you’ve considered everything.
If the pages begin looking samey-samey or you find your eye glossing over the page without reading, take a break. Just as you did between writing and revision, give yourself some time off (a day or three) between major revision passes.
The Six-Pass Revision Method
Early revision passes help you strengthen the story itself. Does the story work? Where do readers pick up and lose interest? Are the characters relatable? Don’t bother agonizing over the writing at this stage; you have bigger fish to fry.
Draft #1: The “First” Draft
The very first draft of your manuscript is often called a discovery draft (because you’re “discovering” the story as you write), a framework draft, or a rough draft. I don’t believe in calling this a “shitty first draft.” There’s nothing shitty about it. It’s a framework or first layer—no more, no less—and there’s absolutely no reason to expect a first layer to read like a masterwork.
If you write from an outline, this first draft could be fairly solid already. Good work!
If you’ve used the first draft to try out different angles and figure out what happens, you’re headed for further development. That could mean laying down an entirely new foundation layer—another “first” draft—or it may mean heavily revising your original draft. As you gain experience writing complete novels and become more fluent with story form and storytelling techniques, you’ll eventually minimize or eliminate these early follow-up drafts.
Completing a framework draft can mean a lot of false starts and partial drafts, as you jiggle various approaches and audition new ideas. You might write a first draft using a different point of view or from another character’s viewpoint. You might try a partial draft to audition a different narrative tense. You might try a framework draft with an alternative ending. Write as many drafts or make as many big-picture revision passes as you need to be comfortable you’ve arrived at a solid foundation draft.
Revision Draft #2: The Story Pass
During this draft, you won’t be working with the writing itself. Instead, you’ll be working on the big picture at the plot and character levels. You’ll survey the story for obvious plot holes, clarify and make sense of character motivations, and pump up story conflict. Is the story’s basic structure in place? Look for the turning points and complications that build a coherent, cohesive story.
Time Out: Alpha Reading
This is a good time to seek first impressions from your very first readers—a spouse or friend, and maybe your writing partners. Alpha readers focus on high-level, big-picture issues. Be clear that the book hasn’t yet been proofread or polished in any way. You’re looking for help identifying major issues: plot holes, flat characters, boring sections, parts that are confusing or just don’t make sense.
Revision Draft #3: The Scene Pass
This is one of the most important revision passes in your novel’s development—but to my dismay, it’s the one most new authors skip. I get that it’s no fun to crawl through your manuscript scene by scene, but it’s your job as the author to make every scene worth readers’ while.
Does every scene move the plot forward or add some new facet to the characters? Once the story is solid, begin building stronger internal connections: pacing, foreshadowing, clues, themes. Have you forged a chain of progressively escalating complications driving the story from start to finish? Do any of the scenes seem superfluous or in the wrong place? Are there gaps in time or leaps of logic? Did you forget to tie up loose ends and use clues?
Many writers need more than one draft to complete plot- and scene-level cleanup. Speculative fiction writers often add another draft specifically devoted to worldbuilding.
Time Out: Workshopping
By this point, you’ve probably lost whatever scrap of objectivity you regained during the time you set the manuscript aside after you wrote it. Now you need fresh eyes. This is a good time for workshopping your manuscript or seeking the scrutiny of a trusted critique partner. If you didn’t share your manuscript with alpha readers earlier, loop back for that now. You need outside eyes on your story.
Revision Draft #4: The Feedback Pass
This draft is all about implementing the reader feedback you just got. (You did get some, didn’t you?) Once you’ve finished this task, you’re done with changes at the story level until you’ve begun working with a professional editor.
Revising the Writing: The Final Passes
Now you’re ready to shift the focus from what the story tells to how you’ve chosen to tell it.
Revision Draft #5: The Writing Pass
This is your opportunity to add artistry and sheer sizzle.
This is your opportunity to add artistry. Fold in sensory imagery and figurative language. Identify and hone thematic elements. Also focus on narrative techniques: tighten exposition, render dialogue tight and snappy, prune unnecessary dialogue tags, check for consistency of point of view and narrative tense, and obliterate head-hopping.
This draft is also the time for dumping clichés and overused pet words, pruning unnecessary adverbs, beefing up weak verbs … all that word salad stuff.
Revision Draft #6: The Tweaking Pass
Last call! Now’s the time to run spellcheck and fiddle with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Don’t spend your goodwill points on volunteer proofreaders just yet; you’ll need their eyes for your post-editing revisions. Doing a thorough job here will allow your editor to devote more time and attention to deeper issues and could potentially lower your line editing or copyediting rate.
You may be wondering what happened to beta readers in this process. You’re likely to need another round of outside feedback after you’ve begun working with an editor, so unless your roster of willing readers overfloweth, save beta reading for after story-level editing (assessments, critiques, and developmental editing). Beta feedback will help you judge whether you’ve successfully solved the issues raised by your editor.
Keep in mind that these six drafts all happen before your manuscript ever makes it to the editor. Yes, you’ll get better at this, and yes, the process will eventually grow shorter. With tens of thousands of titles published every month, your book must sparkle to stand out. Insist on nothing less than your best.
Recommended Revision Resources
Revision is a lot of work, that’s no lie. I’m going to help you cut to the chase with what I think is the sharpest revision guide ever. Janice Hardy has assembled an at-home revision workshop she calls Revise Your Novel in 31 Days. It’s free, it’s right on her Fiction University website, and it’s absolutely brilliant. You don’t have to do it over an actual month’s time, although you could. Use as much or as little of it as helps you work through your manuscript in whatever time frame you have available.
If you’re really enthusiastic, I heartily recommend the full version using her book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft.
Revising a novel goes deeper than "# words to revise" or "how to use commas." These books give you strategies & techniques to improve what matters to agents and readers: the story & delivery. This short list is the stuff my clients say creates results.
— Lisa Poisso, Story Coach/Editor (@LisaPoisso) November 9, 2022
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